Committee stage & Committee: 7th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 7th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 28th July 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-VII Seventh marshalled list for Committee - (23 Jul 2020)
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe [V]
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. Like her, I thank the Minister, my noble friend Lady Bloomfield and the Bill team for their patience and productivity. We need to complete Committee today, so I will be brief and confine myself to expressing doubts about Amendment 270. I am looking forward to hearing from my noble friend the Minister, but I think that this amendment and some of the others in this group would in practice lead to problems in trade negotiations in a way that would cause insurmountable problems of compliance with the World Trade Organization. I cannot see a way around this. Noble Lords do not pay enough attention to the importance of trade, wherever it takes place, at a time when we face recessionary shock. We must tread a careful path.

Since the Bill was first presented in the other place, the Government have gone a long way. They have established the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which was launched publicly today, and as Red Tractor is involved in its work, I should again register my interest as its chair. It is a victory for the farming unions which fought for it. It is a well-judged move by the Secretary of State for Trade to get it off the ground quickly in time to provide a sounding board and have an impact on current trade negotiations. In these circumstances, I really cannot see the value in the proposal before us today.

Baroness Humphreys Portrait Baroness Humphreys (LD) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, and it has been a pleasure to take part, albeit a very minor part, in these early stages of the Bill. I have been full of admiration for the passion and knowledge about agriculture shown by so many noble Lords. My family’s connection with farming ended when my great-great-grandfather’s farm in north Wales was taken over as a result of the rent increases imposed during the agrarian revolution of the late 1800s, which precipitated the social change his son described so graphically in his autobiography.

It seems to me that as we discuss the importance of agricultural and food standards in relation to Amendment 271, we could be standing at the cusp of another type of agrarian revolution, one which could again lead to changes in the viability of farms, not just in Wales, but in the whole of the UK. The threat of cheap, poor-quality imports leading to the lowering of domestic standards and a reduction in farm income is very real.

I was conscious, as I listened to some earlier debates, that most of the speakers spoke from experience of large farms in England, and it was a pleasure to hear the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord Hain, speak earlier about small family farms, which are so prevalent in Wales. As a young female farmer, Beca Glyn, said in her blog, these farms make,

“valuable contributions … to animal welfare, landscape management and culture; especially the Welsh language”.

Wales is, of course, hilly and mountainous and our climate is mild and wet. This means that only a small proportion of our land is suitable for arable cropping, but grass for the grazing of livestock is in abundance. Our upland and hill farms therefore provide grazing for hardy breeds of cattle such as Welsh Blacks and for hardy Welsh Mountain sheep. Our farmers, who work hard in sometimes very difficult conditions, are proud of their produce and the standards they achieve in animal welfare, and none more so than farmers around the Conwy Valley, where I live. I cannot imagine that there has ever been a time when the quality of our farmers’ produce has been appreciated and valued by customers in the UK and in France as much as it has been in recent years. I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, about future access to the French market for our sheep.

For our local butchers, mart operators and abattoirs, quality is key, a quality that comes from adhering to high standards. Search their websites and Facebook pages, and the words “pride”, “high standards”, “quality” and “traceability” appear in abundance, so it is hardly surprising that farmers and consumers across Wales have been justifiably appalled and angered by the refusal of the Government to agree to an amendment which would guarantee a commitment to equivalent standards on imported agricultural or food products in this Bill. For them, there is no logic that an Agriculture Bill says nothing about protecting the standards which they have strived for and to which they have adhered. They cannot understand why a Government who committed in their manifesto, just seven short months ago, not to compromise on British farming’s high standards, found it so difficult to accept the amendment introduced at Third Reading in the other place.

Sadly, even the commission announced by the Government today, with its temporary nature and inability to give binding advice, will be seen by farmers and consumers alike as an ineffective sop. Unfortunately, and I dislike having to say this, this has now become a matter of trust. Farmers and consumers alike question why the Government are so reluctant to enshrine their manifesto commitment in law. They ask: could it be that a manifesto commitment is easier to renege on? The Minister is held in the highest regard in your Lordships’ House. He is courteous at all times, even at midnight on Day 6 in Committee, and I know he is a man of his word, but Amendment 271 is on the Marshalled List because farmers’ leaders and consumers have asked for it to be there. They know that in reality we are not dealing with a Minister we know and trust but with a Government who increasingly talk in doublespeak and cannot always be guaranteed to stand by their word. That is why their word has to be on a statutory basis in the Bill.

Lord Clark of Windermere Portrait Lord Clark of Windermere (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys. When she was describing the difficulties of farmers in the north of Wales she could have been describing my county of Cumbria. The similarities are uncanny, but we knew that, even down to the weather. This seven-day Committee stage has been one of the finest debates that I have been involved in in almost 50 years in the Houses of Parliament. I think a lot of it is due to the way in which we have been led by the two Ministers. I am speaking as a member of the Opposition and am proud to be a Labour Peer, but the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, has been an admirable Minister. He deals with us all, from whatever side, equally and in a tolerant way and tries to answer the questions, and he is ably assisted by the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, who shows the same tolerance. I thank them both very much.

My colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, speaks with a great deal of sense and independence. He said that this was the most important agricultural Bill he had ever been involved in since he and I came into Parliament in 1970. He is absolutely right, but it is more challenging this time because, finally, we have realised that agriculture is not completely about farming. It is about forestry. It is about horticulture. It is about land use. It is about food standards and quality. It is about the environment. It is about what can be done through agriculture to cope with climate change. Today, this group of amendments brings home to us the result of Brexit and, accompanying that, trade deals.